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A Standoff in Pikeville

‘Appalachian Shaming’ on Day 100: The White Supremacist Rally and Counter Protest that No One Wanted here

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On President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, a Saturday afternoon standoff in Pikeville, Kentucky between a coalition of white supremacist groups and anti-fascist counter protesters fell short of violence that had local officials on high alert in the days and hours leading up to the event.  Hundreds from each side of a bubbling culture war over race and ideology — as well dozens of regional, national and international media — lined Main Street in an otherwise deserted downtown. But locals say they didn’t want or ask for any of it to happen.

Pike County residents, who voted 80 percent in favor of Trump in the November election, say Saturday wasn’t representative of the area and some went as far as calling the course of events “an exercise in futility.”

“This is Appalachian shaming. They both think they need to speak for us and we can speak for ourselves,” said University of Pikeville Chaplain Robert Musick.

Despite the decline of the coal industry and the loss of many good paying jobs in the area, Musick said many places in Central Appalachia, particularly Pikeville, are evolving the best they can.

Billed as a “rally for white working families” by white nationalist/supremacist group the Traditionalist Worker Party, word spread on social media as early as February and drew attention from anti-fascist (a collective known online and elsewhere as “antifa”) groups in the surrounding region and elsewhere across the country. 

Anti-Fascist protesters taunt and blow whistles and other noisemakers at a neo-Nazi rally held by an alliance of white supremacists in Pikeville, Kentucky on Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Photo: Joel Beeson)

Participants from both sides were mostly from out of state, leaving locals few and far between Saturday afternoon in downtown Pikeville. A few dozen Pike County residents came downtown to witness the scene from a neutral position along main street.

“[I plan to stick around] until it gets crazy and then I plan on leaving. I mean, all of the law enforcement expects it to and their history sort of would seem to show that — that any time these two groups are together — it always ends up with with a fight,” said University of Pikeville student and county native Kyle Newsome.

Newsome’s concerns echoed public safety warnings from city officials and the university urged students not to go downtown Saturday afternoon — or, better yet, leave town altogether. He stuck around and found himself closest to the dozens of law enforcement officers who had formed a line in the middle of Main Street.

“I don’t know if it’s a stereotype of the South — or if Kentucky is just not Southern enough — but we’re predominantly white. I don’t really know anyone who’s afraid of minorities are afraid of some impending invasion of minorities,” said Newsome.

Felicia Hager, 32, a resident of Pike County, Kentucky shouts “You’re not welcome here!” to a group of five or six members of the neo-Confederate group, The League of the South, in the hours before the Traditionalist Workers Party and other white supremacist groups arrived in downtown Pikeville for a rally on Saturday, April 29th, 2017. Hager, a mother of four children, says she normally stays out of politics, but the appearance of white supremacist groups in her hometown changed her mind. “I’m not one to keep up with politics and I’ve never voted in my life, but when I heard about this, I thought it was time to get involved.” (Photo: Joel Beeson)

With a population of just over 65,000, Pike County is 98 percent white, according to data from the 2010 U.S. Census. Still yet, locals say displays of white supremacy don’t reflect their way of life.

Earlier in the week, Pikeville city officials passed an ordinance banning hoods and masks, citing what they called a perceived threat of violence from anti-fascist groups on social media. At least one counter protest expected to be peaceful in nature at a nearby city park and billed as a “rally for equality and American values” was cancelled by Friday afternoon. Organizers of that event said they had received credible threats to their safety. 

As the rally and counter protest began just after 1 p.m., about a dozen members of the League of the South stood across the street from an anti-fascist coalition — whose early numbers of a few dozen quickly turned into a few hundred after a march.

Anti-fascists, many of whom were clad in black and donned red bandanas, chanted phrases like  “black lives matter” and “Appalachia comin’ atcha, Nazi scum we’re gonna smash ya.”

The group also chanted, “We want Heimbach” — a reference taunting Traditionalist Worker Party leader Matt Heimbach of Indiana, who had yet to appear at the rally by that point.

One member of the League of the South retorted to the anti-fascists, “We can’t understand you because we don’t speak n****r!”

Members of the neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Movement, face-off with counter-protestors in downtown Pikeville, Kentucky on Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Photo: Joel Beeson)

Heimbach and The Traditionalist Worker Party — part of a hyper-conservative, white supremacist movement on the far-right that has gained increased attention in recent years — has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Other groups participating on the white supremacist side, including the National Socialist Movement — identified as a neo-Nazi organization notable for its violent anti-Jewish rhetoric — have also been identified by SPLC as hate groups.

As the afternoon went on, members of Traditionalist Worker Party and National Socialist Movement marched out together to a barricaded area to join members of the League of the South who were standing in front of the courthouse along Main Street.

“Hail Pikeville! Hail the white race!” yelled many members of the National Socialist Movement as they gave a hand signal commonly used by white supremacists. Nazi, Confederate and American flags blew in the wind around them and dozens of members of the white supremacist groups were openly carrying handguns.

Kevin Keathley, a professional basketball coach originally from Pike County who said he coached the first all-black team in the area some years ago, said Pikeville is an generally opened-minded place despite what most outsiders think of Eastern Kentucky and the heart of Appalachia.

They were both told to stay out. They’ve been told not to come. They’re not welcome here. If you want to be inclusive — all inclusive — you’re more than welcome,” said Keathley.

“But at the same time, it’s free speech if they do it peacefully, they don’t invoke, and they don’t incite. You know, you let them do what they got to do and let them get out of town and to go to the next town,” he said.

During the faceoff between the alliance of white nationalist and anti-fascist demonstrators in downtown Pikeville, Rob Musick, campus chaplain and religion instructor at the University of Pikeville talks with Brad Griffin, of Eufaula, Alabama, who runs the white nationalist website Occidental Dissent and is a member of the neo-confederate League of the South. “This is a classic example of Appalachian shaming,” said Musick, “with both sides coming from the outside thinking they know what’s best for us. We don’t need them; we can take care of ourselves.”

As white supremacists groups exited downtown in their vehicles and were followed out by anti-fascists on foot, two squads of Kentucky State Police were mobilized to stave off the potential for violence as each group had exited their respective barricaded areas.

As he was exiting the rally, Heimbach was served a court summons in which he is accused of criminal physical harassment. Those charges were brought in July following a March 2016 Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky where Heimbach shoved and struck a black woman who was protesting then-presidential candidate Trump. The incident was recorded on video. Saturday was the first time Heimbach had been back in Kentucky since charges were filed in July 2016, according to Pikeville City Manager Donovan Blackburn.

Chaplain Musick hinted that part of the reason for Saturday’s rally is a perception of eastern Kentucky as down and out — a result of media narrative that’s focused on a downtrodden and distressed white working class.

“You know they talk of how poor we are and how bad it is. You look around at what we’re doing okay and life is good here. And, of course, the national narrative is that life is awful,” said Musick.

The chaplain explained that he feels Heimbach and The Traditionalist Worker Party — along with other groups involved in Saturday’s rally — are misguided in their appeal to the people of the region.

“[In the eyes of these rallying white supremacist groups] we’re shoeless ignorant hillbillies that need everyone’s help, and we actually don’t. We’re doing quite fine and we have committed loving people and, of course, we have conservative people, too. And I just think — Heimbach and even the antifascists — I just wish they would listen to us as opposed to speaking for us.”

Pikeville City Police patrolman Chad Branham serves a criminal summons to Matthew Heimbach, leader of the white supremacist Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), headquartered in Indiana, for a court case in which he is accused of physical harassment of a black female protester at a campaign rally for Donald Trump in Louisville, Kentucky in March, 2016 — an event captured on video. Heimbach was served as he was leaving a rally with a coalition of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Pikeville, Kentucky on Saturday, April 29, 2017. It was the first time Heimbach had been back in Kentucky since charges were filed in July 2016, according to Pikeville City Manager Donovan Blackburn. (Photo: Joel Beeson)

Dave Mistich (@davemistich) is the managing editor of 100 Days in Appalachia.

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A Standoff in Pikeville

Policing White-Supremacist Rallies: Lessons from Small-Town America

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With smaller budgets and fewer personnel, several rural law-enforcement agencies have managed to protect both free speech and public safety when white supremacists come to town. While metropolitan Charlottesville erupted, these places kept the peace.

On August 12, white supremacists, Southern nationalists and other groups under the “alt-right” banner fought anti-fascists and protesters in the streets of Charlottesville, traumatizing a city and leaving three people dead.

Left unchecked by law enforcement, the violence boiled out of control, culminating when James Fields allegedly crashed a car into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer and wounding others.

The events of Charlottesville serve as a warning for law enforcement and community leaders about the potential results of what has become an increasingly common sight: White supremacists, neo-Confederates, or others plan a demonstration or of gathering, with anti-fascists (or antifa) and protesters then amassing to oppose them.

The challenge is all the starker for small towns and rural counties, which don’t have the funding and resources of their urban counterparts. Yet they’re still responsible for balancing freedom of speech and public safety in a way that allows people to voice their convictions without violence.

So far in 2017, white supremacy or neo-Confederate groups have staged events in small towns and rural areas throughout the South. More events are likely to come. White supremacists have shown a penchant for trying to recruit in these areas. They’re also drawn to Confederate symbols, and small towns and crossroads across the South have statues or monuments to those who fought in the conflict. Despite the disparity in resources, none of these events has erupted into Charlottesville-scale violence.

The response by Charlottesville’s police has become the subject of a lawsuit alleging that its non-intervention significantly contributed to the violence. The city government also has been criticized for poor communication and the city manager’s decision to go on vacation just before the event.

These events in rural America, especially in the South, predate Charlottesville. In April, the Traditionalist Worker Party staged a rally in Pikeville, Kentucky, a town of about 6,900 in a county of 65,000 along the state’s border with West Virginia. The group was joined by others such as the League of the South. Antifa groups gathered to protest, and the Oath Keepers, a militia group of current and former military and police who say they are unaffiliated with either side, showed up as well.

In Tennessee, white supremacists have gathered in state parks for several years running. In late September, groups affiliated with white supremacy website Stormfront met at a lodge in Cumberland Mountain State Park, a little south of Crossville, a town of 11,000 in a county of 56,000, on the Cumberland Plateau. The supremacists were met by protesters who amassed nearby and shouted at them throughout the weekend.

Tension similarly rose this year around the third annual running of Confederate battle flags on a circuit that wound up in Floyd, Virginia, a town of 425 residents in the southwest part of the state. The event, started in August of 2015 as a response to the removal of rebel flags from Amazon, Walmart, and other retailers, was different this year in that the riders wanted to congregate around a Confederate statue in front of the courthouse at the center of town. As word spread, protesters started organizing a response.

In many ways, these rural rallies and meetings fit the profile for how white supremacy and neo-Confederate groups have operated in the past, said Ryan Lenz, senior writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and editor of its Hatewatch blog. However, the strategy has changed in 2017, with the groups expanding their targets to include larger cities.

“Increasingly, in era of Donald Trump, these rallies are being held in large areas where the hope is to ultimately trigger a response from protesters in the anti fascist movement and others,” Lenz said. “No part of the country, rural or urban, is being spared from an effort of the alt-right to put racist and hate ideologies in front of everyone’s faces. The hope is they can capitalize on this Trump moment to take these ideologies out of the shadows forever.”

There’s no unifying strategy in the disparate alt-right movement, which consists of a wide variety of groups that embrace a mix of racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and populism. Overall, though, there’s a two-fold approach: Show up in rural areas to recruit, and hit larger cities to provoke outrage and media coverage, Lenz said. The Pikeville rally, for instance, was part of the Traditionalist Workers Party’s efforts to build support in rural areas in the eastern Midwest and northern South.

When these demonstrations or gatherings are announced, community leaders, especially those in law enforcement, are faced with the challenge of balancing the right to free speech—for both the organizers and for those opposing them—with public safety.

Here are a few lessons learned by those who have had to manage white supremacist and neo-Confederate gatherings in rural communities in 2017.

 

1) Get informed.

When the Pikeville rally was announced in February, local officials scrambled to learn more.

“Shortly after it was scheduled, we started obtaining information about what the event was about, who would be attending,” said Pikeville Commissioner of Public Safety Phillip Reed. “We were learning ourselves for the first time, because an event like that had never happened in our town.”

In Tennessee, white nationalists have made a habit of using state parks for gatherings. They usually rent a facility, which sometimes—but not always—gives officials there a heads-up about the gathering. “Sometimes they’re hit and miss and we’re not always aware until they’re there,” said Mike Robertson, director of operations for Tennessee State Parks.

Similarly, protesters have had to apply for permits, Robertson said, which gives officials the chance to station them near the group they are protesting, but far enough away to minimize physical conflict.

Robertson said the parks have a mandate to provide access to public lands, as well as to provide opportunities for free speech. State parks have managed that tension for years. One group in particular, American Renaissance, which according to the SPLC “promotes pseudo-scientific studies and research that purport to show the inferiority of blacks to whites,” has visited Tennessee’s Montgomery Bell State Park for six years running. Its first year, Robertson said, it was met by a significant protest. Since then, the number of protesters has bounced around, but spiked this year.

 

2) Find support from other communities.

Pikeville’s police department, which has only 21 officers, reached out to other agencies for personnel and support ahead of its rally, which allowed it to supplement its force.

In Floyd County, Virginia, Sheriff Brian Craig, who had fewer than 20 officers on staff at the time of the flag rally, also put the call out to other law enforcement officers—which turned out to be more complicated than one might expect, given that Virginia Tech was playing a home football game in neighboring Montgomery County, which also needed staffed by multiple agencies. A total of about 90 law enforcement officers—some wearing riot gear—were on duty in Floyd when the flag ride came through.

Tennessee state parks officials also partner with regional agencies, but in addition, all of its staff are commissioned law enforcement officers themselves. The state park system also employs a special operations response team trained in crowd control.

 

3) Keep the lines of communication open.

Unlike the events in Pikeville and in Tennessee State Parks, the flag rally and protest in Floyd County were both organized largely by people from the area. Craig personally knew the lead organizers on both sides.

“One of beautiful things about my position here as sheriff with this incident was that I had an open line of communication with both folks,” Craig said. “It was very nice to be able to talk with both those groups to find out what they were going to do, so we could strategically plan. What I was worried about was folks who would come in who don’t have connections to either side.”

By the time the riders arrived that afternoon, the plan had changed significantly, on both sides. Craig consulted with a local judge about blocking access to the courthouse lawn and statue. He then had a conversation with the ride organizer, who agreed that for safety purposes his group would just ride around the courthouse, instead of parking and physically approaching the statue. Likewise, a primary organizer of the protest agreed to call for her people to instead support an event at a nearby black church. Protesters still gathered on the sidewalk across from the courthouse, but the group was smaller than it would have been.

“No one was arrested, no one was hurt, no one was injured,” Craig said. “It couldn’t have gone any better.”

4) Keep ’em separated.

Pikeville also used interlocking metal bike racks to contain the opposing groups and keep them separated across two lanes of traffic. That separation largely prevented arguments from escalating to shoving or fist-fights, Reed said. When the Oath Keepers, a militia consisting of current and former military and police, arrived in Pikeville, they too were directed to remain in one contained spot, he said.

That’s not what happened in Charlottesville. When police there cleared white nationalists from Emancipation Park, where the Robert E. Lee statue stands, they effectively drove them directly into protesters on nearby streets—then took a mostly hands-off approach while white supremacists, protesters, and militia skirmished in the build-up to Heyer’s death.

Separating opposing sides is a focal point for law enforcement managing these sorts of demonstrations, and it’s unclear exactly why Charlottesville police failed in that respect. The city police department declined comment for this story, citing an ongoing lawsuit in which it is involved.

5) You can’t over-prepare.

Both Floyd County Sheriff Craig and Pikeville Policy Chief Reed emphasized the importance of preparation ahead of these events to achieving some semblance of public safety, even if the atmosphere is charged.

“The biggest thing is, always prepare for the worst scenario,” Reed said. “When you think that you’re prepared, keep preparing more. I don’t think you can be fully prepared for what can happen unexpectedly at an event like this. Tempers seem to flare and get out of control very easily. When people want to voice their beliefs and their feelings, having the preparedness to not only react, but also pro-act to prevent escalating it, is a very key component.”

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